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No pain, no gain.

Sometimes, the best intentions can come back to bite you. In 2009, snack food giant Frito-Lay introduced 100% compostable packaging for its SunChips multi-grain snack product line. The packaging is made of more than 90% polylactic acid (PLA), derived from corn, and is designed to completely biodegrade in a hot, active compost bin in 14 weeks.

While other snack food manufacturers use renewable or recyclable packaging, Frito-Lay took the green initiative one step further, creating the only compostable packaging. "You eat the chips. The earth eats the bag," says their Web site. The packaging was the recipient of a 2010 R&D 100 Award, as one of the most technologically significant products developed in 2009.

Now, the coming-back-to-bite-you part: lust 18 months after launch, Frito-Lay announced that it was switching from the biodegradable bags to the old plastic packaging for most chip flavors. Only the original plain flavor, its second-best selling flavor, would continue to be packaged in the compostable bag.

Why? Customers complained that the bag was too noisy and chip sales dropped. Due to its molecular structure, the bag material makes more noise than traditional packaging. How much noise? Amateur videos posted on the Internet ridiculed the volume. Several network news reports went so far as to compare the decibels from crinkling a bag to a subway train.

I conducted my own unscientific experiment in the snack aisle of my supermarket, testing the sound volume of SunChips versus assorted bags of pretzels, Cheese Doodles, and tortilla chips. The verdict: Yes, the bag was louder than the others. But no one complained that I was making a thunderous noise. The sound did not drown out the loudspeaker announcements about the deli specials. A nearby shopper continued her boisterous cell phone conversation. In other words, no one noticed. Shopping and life continued without disruption.

Meanwhile, wind-powered renewable energy installations around the country are hearing complaints-and are the subject of lawsuits--over noise generated by the wind turbines. Homeowners and neighbors of the turbines may have legitimate concerns about noise, quality of life, and the impact on property values. These are serious issues that can--and need to be--addressed by researchers, residents, and government officials with technology advances and site planning.

But saying no to a disposable snack food bag? Are we so spoiled by consumer conveniences that we would reject something that is good for the environment because the noise is a minor distraction?

The 2008 animated movie WALL-E tells a story of the hazards of mass consumerism and environmental ignorance. In the movie, humans evacuate a trash-covered Earth so robots could clean the place up, a five-year plan that spirals into a 700-year exile. After centuries of living in micro-gravity with all of life's mundane tasks--like walking--handled by the ship's automated systems, and easy access to food and drink from the Buy-n-Large megacorporation, the human passengers had become morbidly obese and need high tech recliners to move about the ship. In the end, humanity learns a lesson and literally turns over a new leaf.

Our lesson: perhaps a little "pain" of a noisy bag now is worth the "gain" of a more livable environment later.

Rita C. Peters

Editorial Director
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Author:Peters, Rita C.
Publication:R & D
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2010
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